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Tomopop About Town: Shopping in Akihabara

3:00 PM on 06.18.2011 // Scott Kremer

Akihabara. The name itself is enough to elicit feelings of excitement among the most jaded otaku, whether they're figure collectors, electronics nerds, hardcore gamers, or anime/manga geeks. I fall squarely into all of those categories, so to me, Akihabara (often shortened to Akiba) is a little slice of heaven. In fact, I make a point to visit Akiba at least once every time I make a trip to Japan, which is usually happens once every year or two.

Many reading this blog have probably already visited what has come to be known as the otaku Mecca, and many have lived vicariously through others' expeditions. I'm going to try to provide an overview of what it takes to shop in Akiba, focusing largely on the Radio Kaikan building, given that it is one of Akiba's biggest draws (especially for toy/figure collectors), but mainly because it's going to be demolished and rebuilt starting the end of next month. It's sad, but offers a new beginning for a bunch of stores that currently feel jam-packed in a fairly outdated structure. I'm looking forward to seeing what replaces it!

Hit the jump for a photo tour of one of my favorite places in the world!

Akihabara used to exist primarily for the purpose of selling electronics; since then it has expanded to include more video game, anime, and manga merchandise. This much is clear the moment you step out of Akiba Station, and are greeted with one of the several bright-red SEGA buildings. Those tubes to the right are escalators in an adjacent electronics store -- you'll often find elevators going up, and only stairs or elevators on your way back down, so plan accordingly.

Turn right, and you can see plenty of buildings lined up, full of salespeople just waiting to grab your hard-earned cash. LaOX is clear in the image above, one of its many locations -- it's a large electronics store packed with pretty much everything you can imagine. However, don't make the mistake of believing that electronics in Japan are significantly cheaper than everywhere else in the world. Especially in the U.S., retail prices are pretty close (often less), and bargain hunters can easily find deals that will beat those in Akiba, duty free or not.

The building closer to the camera is the famed Radio Kaikan. It originally used to be dedicated to electronics, as was the rest of Akiba, but over time was overtaken by anime- and manga-related merch. It houses a ton of separate stores condensed into tiny, walled-off spaces. Like I mentioned, next month is its last, and it'll be sad to see it go, but hopefully something sleeker and more suited to its demographic will spring up. In the mean time, the stores are having to relocate to various locations around Akihabara, but will be back once the new building is up.

But let me venture a bit around the the town before coming back to Radio Kaikan.

Directly across the street from the Radio Kaikan building is Gamers' main Akiba headquarters. The name "Gamers" is actually a little misleading. The shop is dedicated primarily to anime and manga goods, with perhaps a few games. The further up you head in the building, the more hardcore the otaku get, the hotter it gets, and the smellier it gets. Some of these buildings are sincerely lacking proper air conditioning, and it's painful when you're stuck in a crowd of hikikomori with questionable bathing habits who only seem to venture out to this one city.

Despite being owned by one company, it's interesting to note that depending on where you go in the Gamers building, items will vary in price. It often holds true that the higher up you go, the cheaper the item will be, especially when talking figures. Make sure to look around before dropping cash on something, especially if there are plenty out there.

An interesting thing about this building, and others, is the lack of separation between adult and family-friendly products. There might be a Madoka display mere feet from a collection of eroge. This makes for an interesting selection of people, although in the otaku stores they are predominantly male. If you decide to head up far enough, on the top floor, there's room for players of popular card games to battle.

Let's take a step back from all the action. This picture was taken from the UDX building -- a short walk from the train station -- which not only houses a ton of awesome restaurants, but also the Tokyo Anime Center, a small store that sells anime memorabilia and contains up-to-date maps of Akiba in English with the locations of nearly every store in the city, all broken out into simple categories. It's for this reason that you may want to consider making Tokyo Anime Center your first stop, as it will help guide you through the chaos, although there is something to be said for exploring on your own.

Also visible in the picture is Taito Station, a massive 7-story arcade. On the lowest floor of these arcade buildings, the claw games are usually on display, and you can score some pretty awesome prize figures and plushes if you have the magic touch! Gloomy Bear and Hello Kitty products abound. Head upstairs and you'll find floors segregated by game type -- fighting, rhythm, strategy, photo booths, etc.

Also of note is the Animate building in the background, a popular chain that carries, predictably, anime-and manga-related merch, including toys and figures.

I feel the need to give one more tip before heading on to the Radio Kaikan building: check the alleyways. Many foreigners might skip this and head straight into the street-front-facing stores, but to do so would be a big mistake.

First of all, check out the display above -- look at all those cards! This was located in an alley near Radio Kaikan. You're bound to stumble across all kinds of neat stores that don't have the money to pay for prime position, but that's a good thing for you! Many used figure stores are a little out of sight, but because of the lower cost of real estate, they can afford to offer you better deals on rare figures. These are almost always the best places to buy used, and the Japanese generally do an incredible job of taking care of their products.

Okay, as I promised, here's Radio Kaikan. You can see the names of a couple on the facade: K-BOOKS (a big manga retailer that carries many other goods) Kaiyodo. Also notable is Yellow Submarine, which specializes in tabletop RPGs, but also carries other merchandise. Many smaller retailers have also set up shop inside, including gashapon stores, model kit stores, electronics stores, and more.

From the front, it might not look like much. There's an elevator to the left so you can reach the upper floors. Head to the right, though ...

And it's Kotobukiya's Akiba headquarters! This store attracts more foreigners than I've seen almost anywhere else in Akihabara, and thusly it's overpriced. Still, it's one of the best organized and most comfortable stores around, so it's definitely worth a look.

Inside, there are tons of blind-boxed toys, key chains, cell phone straps, cell phone covers, figmas, Nendoroids, you name it. The store really caters to the souvenir shopper, which is understandable, as it's right there in front of everything, and makes for an easy stop for casual tourists.

Also impressive is their collection of memorabilia behind glass windows, most available for purchase. Check out all that Miyazaki stuff!

And look at this big guy -- I want it almost as much as I want a western release of Laputa. Ah, I suppose I could always import it.

Head up one more floor, and you can check out the Kotobukiya showroom (right next to a large figure store), with the latest Kotobukiya releases and some future ones to preview. When I visited, they had everything from Zoids to Watchmen statues to Marvel's and DC's Bishoujo lines.

There were some very neat displays, and a number products that hadn't yet seen release, such as Koto's Lucy Ghostbusters bishoujo figure (I have to say she looks great up close!). Check out the gallery for even more shots of some displays.

Kaiyodo easily has one of the most impressive stores in the building, but because of the store relocating while Raidio Kaikan is rebuilt, they were clearing their inventory and everything was 30% off! This was great news for me, though, as there were a couple Revoltechs that I had been wanting (and a few rare ones as well).

One cool thing about Kaiyodo's shop, as you can see, are the giant statues of popular anime characters (and an Eva unit, at that).

This gigantic Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star has already been sold (for ¥600,900 -- that's a whopping US$7,500).

But these lovely ladies were still available! Anyone fancy adding a life-size Belldandy to your collection?

There were, of course, many, many displays of recently-released Revoltechs, even of those that weren't in stock. Check out that clear purple Eva Unit 01 (Revoltech Yamaguchi 100)!

As is evident in the picture above, the building is clearly suffering from some wear and tear, and the earthquake only made it worse. Cracks like those are seen all over inside, and as I walked around it became more and more obvious why it's about time to knock the building down and start again.

Heading upstairs, more and more of the floors don't allow photographs, which is a shame, as one of them had a huge collection of the most popular Dollfie Dreams that I'm sure some of you would have liked to see. Unfortunately, I couldn't sneak any pics, as I stuck out like a sore thumb and was followed around at all times by employees afraid I'd do something wrong. (Steal things? Take photos? I'm not sure.)

So this was my last trip to Radio Kaikan (in its current form), and I wanted to make sure you got a good idea of what the place was all about. Of course, there are other places in Akiba worth visiting that I didn't even touch on. The Mandarake store is wonderful for finding rare, used figures, books, and manga. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to take a picture due to the heavy rain at the time, but it's several stories high, and houses plenty of items, rotating all the time.

Let me sum this whole article up with a few tips for those interested in shopping for toys and figures in Akihabara (and Japan in general).

1. It's probably not worth buying new figures in Japan with sites like Amiami and HLJ around, despite the cost of shipping. Store prices are generally inflated, save a few sale items and some that might be out of stock online.

2. If you do buy a toy or figure in Japan, either stick to small stuff, or if you do buy big, I recommend shipping it back or bringing it back in a carry-on. There's no telling what is going to happen to your luggage, and customs isn't always great about packing it back up with as much care as you put into packing it in the first place.

3. The best value is going to come from used toy stores. Figures are often cheaper than you'll see online, and they're in great condition. Don't settle on the first one you see unless it's ultra rare and you know it's going to be gone when you come back. Do a little digging if you have the time, and if you have time for another trip, stop back at stores you visited before. Some run sales on certain items depending on the day. I managed to pick up a grail of mine for another 10% off due to this, a figure that had been running cheap already.

In conclusion, pretty much any figure fan, or toy fan in general, can have a great time in Akihabara. Just make sure to decide how you plan to shop first, or it will be stressful. I recommend picking up a map (available at the Tokyo Anime Center mentioned above) and planning your route ahead of time, maybe over a meal in the UDX building. Or if you're the kind that prefers to simply explore, go for it! Just keep in mind the tips above, and you should be covered.

One last suggestion: If you're female, or planning on bringing a girl along, you might want to consider taking a trip to Ikebukuro instead. It's like a mini Akiba, but is much friendlier to the fairer sex. You'll find many of the same figure and anime shops (there's an Animate there as well). Fair warning, though -- if you're not into the whole yaoi (Boys' Love) thing, be careful about what stores (and floors) you visit! Ikebukuro is also a haven for fans of that genre.

I hope I was able to help any of you planning a trip, or at least entertain those who aren't. Thanks for reading, and happy shopping!

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Scott Kremer,
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